Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Local Food Week: A cafe owner

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Today’s post comes from Juliet DeWal, owner of my fave local cafe (Urban Escape). The first time I met Juliet was the weekend after my boyfriend and I moved to Belleville. We wandered in after a trip to the farmer’s market and thus, a weekly tradition of market/coffee/butter tarts was born. She immediately knew we were new to town and made us feel more welcome than anywhere back home ever had. It didn’t hurt that she insisted our first visit was on her; something we’ve since seen her do with every first-time customer. For more from Juliet, follow her on Twitter @julietdewal and for her beautiful photos, on Instagram @juliet_dewal and if you’re ever in Belleville (or just passing by on the 401) visit her at Urban Escape.

A Longer Table

There’s a quote we refer to often at the café; in fact, it’s one we have up as the banner photo for our Facebook page:

If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a longer table than a taller fence.

Coming from a large family (fourteen of us!), the table has always been a huge part of my life. Things discussed over dinner, coffee on a Sunday morning after church, breakfasts and tea breaks, homework spread out when projects are due, the careful scrawl of essays, board games and puzzles—much life gets lived around a cup of coffee, a plate of food and things spread out. Love grows, arguments stir (that one time I ended up with a fork accidentally impaled in my hand!), life is sorted and wisdom absorbed.

It wasn’t an uncommon thing, in our house, for friends, family and visitors to stop by. And when they did, no matter how full or busy the table was, the visitor was welcome, a place cleared, chairs spread for another to join us.

As time moved on, I sat at other tables. I’ve had lonesome tables wherein I ate humble pie and nursed my cup of sorrows. I’ve been invited to tables, feasted on friendship and kindness. I’ve had sprawling tables surrounded by friends and family. I took my place at the head of the table and cleared space for others. I’ve spread my heart out in the form of Thanksgiving dinners and comfort foods, in cookies baked and meals scraped together in times of lack.

I suppose it was the love of those tables that led me to where I find myself now. Owning a café in a busy downtown hub brings a great number of folks to the table.

It starts first thing in the morning. A local carpenter pops in as I’m still prepping for the day. He sometimes sweeps the front stoop, or brings in the newspaper. Minutes later, one of our street folks comes in. She tells us of her night, asks about ours. We three share our first coffees of the day together. We’re an unlikely trio. A street person, a carpenter on his way to work after stopping to see his grandchildren and me…keeper of the coffee!

As the day goes on, an amazing thing happens. The table gets longer. As folks come and go—strangers and friends alike—tables are pushed together. People are welcomed. Women slide in beside the elderly. Retirees rock babies shown off by women on the fragile legs of new motherhood. Construction workers pop in for their 15-minute breaks. Retired school teachers share crossword puzzles with joggers and military folks.

Off to the side, beyond the hustle and noise of The Table, we have the writers. The editors and those curled up on the sofa with a book. We have students and each morning, one of our elderly friends who comes to hand write her letters.

In the beginning, each of us were strangers. We drank our coffees in small groups of two or three. We smiled when someone commented on a news item. We ate our butter tarts and sipped lattes and observed one another. I was one of them. We gathered stories and didn’t share our own.

And then, one day, someone pushed two tables together. And a family began.

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The folks at The Table began leaving a buck or two extra, paying forward a coffee for those who couldn’t spare the change. In time, people began leaving money for entire meals so that those who live with food insecurity could rest easy. The Table grew. We pushed four, then six, then seven, then eight tables together.

There’s something about eating together that builds relationship. Over time, in the sharing of a cup of coffee, in the devouring of one of our specialty tarts (your tastebuds will kiss you on the lips!), over bowls of soup and fat sandwiches, our community grew to be a family. We’ve laughed together. Oh! How we laugh. We’ve wept together—strangers meeting one another in places of sorrow and need. We’ve rejoiced and teased and argued (man, can we argue!) and we’ve celebrated together.

And when someone new comes along, we call out “there’s a seat here if you want one”.

A few months ago, we grieved the death of one of our Table Crew. It was then that our Table started a new tradition. It was Steve, actually, who started it. “How much would that entire cake cost?” he asked. I named some made up, outrageous price (we sell slices, not cakes). He laughed and said “Bring it to The Table”. I ceremoniously deposited it in front of him and smiled as he called out “Who wants cake?”

We passed out a stack of forks, and the cake was devoured. One plate, many hands, and something not unlike what you’d expect from Lord of the Flies (hey, it’s cake!). The next week, we did it again (four of us devoured it in less than 45 seconds that day!). And again.

The thing is, while I would love to tell you about the delicious things we serve up, how happy we are to see folks enjoy fresh, wholesome lunches and the kind of deliciousness that makes you swoon, what strikes me most about our café is the relationships we share with one another. The food, while the reason we came to The Table, is rarely the reason we stay there. Those coffees purchased for another, lunches tagged to The Board which allows those who have nothing to feast with us, the kind of a community who value the nourishment of love and respect, of kindness and caring make everything delicious.

And when life gets too heavy, we eat cake. At our long, long table.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

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